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US expanding Afghan prison to take some Guantanamo detainees; W.H. promises closure

    WASHINGTON — The U.S. is helping expand a prison in Afghanistan to take some detainees from Guantanamo Bay, while administration officials argue about whether to bring the most dangerous to the U.S. when the Cuban facility shuts down.
    President Bush has made closing the prison in Cuba a priority, though the Afghan site is not meant to be a substitute, the White House said Friday.
    ‘‘Everybody is working toward the goal to meet what the president has asked them to do, which is to do it as soon as possible,’’ Deputy press secretary Dana Perino told reporters.
    She said Bush’s top aides are in active discussions about closing Guantanamo. Senior officials, meanwhile, have told The Associated Press a consensus is building on how to do it, including sending some high-value suspects to military facilities in the U.S. where they could be prosecuted.
    Officials say the administration is split, with Vice President Dick Cheney’s office and the Justice Department vehemently opposed to any proposal that would bring detainees to U.S. soil, where they would be afforded more legal rights and might pose a threat.
    Pressure to close Guantanamo has been mounting in recent months, with the administration suffering a series of legal setbacks and some in Congress threatening to mandate a shutdown.
    Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Robert Gates, among others, are in favor of the proposal to bring some detainees to the U.S., provided proper safeguards are in place, officials say. And Perino made clear that Bush is determined to see Guantanamo Bay shut down.
    ‘‘America does not have any intention of being the world’s jailer,’’ she said, noting that the United States has announced plans to release about 80 of the some 375 detainees remaining in Guantanamo and hopes to transfer several dozen Afghans back to Afghanistan in the near future.
    Washington is helping the Afghan government build a high-security wing at Pul-e-Charki prison complex just outside Kabul. The wing has 330 cells and can hold up to 660 people, including 65 Afghans held at Guantanamo Bay, according to Afghan officials.
    But Gen. Mohammad Zahir Azimi, the chief spokesman for Afghanistan’s Defense Ministry, said none of those held at Guantanamo had been transferred to Afghanistan so far despite statements by U.S. officials that they would be sent back by the end of April 2007.
    The Guantanamo Bay prison, set up in 2002 to house terror suspects captured in military operations, mostly in Afghanistan, has been a flash point for criticism of the Bush administration at home and abroad.
    Human rights advocates and foreign leaders have repeatedly called for its shutdown, and the prison is regarded by critics as proof of U.S. double standards on fundamental freedoms in the war on terrorism.
    Some of the detainees have come from countries that are U.S. allies, including Britain, Saudi Arabia and Australia. Each of those governments raised complaints about the conditions or duration of detentions, or about the possibility that detainees might face death sentences.
    The Bush administration has transferred 405 detainees out of Guantanamo to more than two dozen countries. Most were later released by their home countries. Of the 375 who remain, the U.S. military says it wants to prosecute 60 to 80 and has cleared for transfer another 80.
    The military says the rest, about 200, are either too dangerous to release or still have intelligence value.
    A proposal gaining traction among Bush’s top national security advisers would have some of the most dangerous suspects at Guantanamo transferred to one or more Defense Department facilities, including the maximum-security prison at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., and a Navy brig in South Carolina.
    Perino declined to comment on the Fort Leavenworth option, which has been raised by lawmakers.
    A scheduled high-level Friday meeting on the matter was canceled after AP reported it was scheduled. Perino said it had been determined late Thursday that the gathering ‘‘wasn’t necessary at this time.’’
    She added: ‘‘That doesn’t mean that people don’t continue to work on ... getting that facility closed. There are people who their sole job, their sole responsibility is working to make sure that that facility is closed.’’
    Since it first began bringing detainees from the war on terror to Guantanamo, the U.S. has made the detention center increasingly resemble a modern prison complex with an operating budget of $125.3 million per year, its former commander told Congress earlier this year.
    By late April 2002, the military had moved the detainees out of the notorious temporary cage-like cells that had been built in the 1990s when some 40,000 migrants from Haiti and Cuba were held at the Navy base. They were moved to a complex of cells with steel-mesh walls known collectively as Camp Delta.
    In 2004, the U.S. opened Camp 5, a modern concrete-and-steel building, modeled after a jail in Indiana, with solid-wall cells for ‘‘high-value’’ detainees, built at a cost of about $16 million.
    The newest facility, Camp 6, was modeled on the highest-security prisons in the United States. The 178-cell prison was built for $37 million by KBR, a subsidiary of Houston-based Halliburton Co., and opened in December.
    Perino said six detainees had been transferred out of Guantanamo Bay on Friday, four to Yemen and two to Tunisia, as the Pentagon announced that one more person, an Afghan terror suspect, had been moved into the facility.
    Rice is working with her counterparts around the world to try to repatriate detainees to their home countries, make sure they are held safely and treated humanely and that they are not allowed to perpetrate acts of terrorism, officials said.
    Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said Gates supports closing the facility.
    ‘‘I think that’s the goal of everybody in the administration and probably most Americans — that we would rather not have to have a place like Guantanamo,’’ he said. ‘‘But the fact remains that there are dangerous people out there that are being picked up on the battlefield that have vowed to return to the fight if released and individuals that have committed war crimes and should be held accountable for their actions.’’
    ————
    Associated Press writers Ben Fox in San Juan, Puerto Rico; Fisnik Abrashi in Kabul, Afghanistan, and Anne Gearan, Deb Riechmann and Pauline Jelinek in Washington contributed to this report.

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